The Origin of… The Joker (1940/1951/1988/2005)

Batman 1The Joker. The Clown Prince of Crime. The Killer Clown. The Man Who Laughs. Mister J. Puddin’ even.

An Anarchist. A Prankster. A Comedian. A Psychopath. An Agent of Chaos. A Gangster. An Instigator. An Artist. A King. An Animal.
Joker has been a lot of things over the years. He is arguably the dangerous, most popular, and most influential of Batman’s Rogues Gallery. There are so many issues I could look at that explain different origins or first appearances of the Joker, and that’s part of the fun. While there are different incarnations of the character through different eras of DC comics, there is no one set origin, he is a wild card, or The Joker card, if I may be so bold. Some of these stories are taken quite seriously, some are just a writers take on it, others are just guys trying to hard to make an extra buck. These are the issues I felt told the best, most cohesive story.

2195504-batman_001f_01To begin I decided that I would go right to the original source – Batman #1. This issue was bookended with Joker tales. The first told a story of The Joker plaguing
the rich and famous of Gotham. Radio broadcasts announced threats of death to the Jokers targets. Little did anyone know, that it was too late. By the time the announcements had gone out, the Joker had already poisoned his victim, and stolen something from them. It wasn’t until Batman discovered the truth that he and Robin put an end to his reign of terror.

The second story takes place days later. The Joker goes back to making radio announcements of plans he has already set in plae. Nothing new, they should have just stuck with the one story. The only interesting thing was a slightly creepy remark that Batman makes.

At the end of everything, they think The Joker is dead and Batman points out that his smile will live on forever. Even after the flesh has decayed his skeleton will smile into eternity. Gruesome. Awesome.

These stories, written by Jerry Robinson, were typical stories of the day, but stand tall above others, and have inspired many stories to come. Not only are the characters used again and again, but plot devices have too. The visual Joker playing cards is used again time and time again such as in Grant Morrison’s Batman R.I.P. and The Killing Joke. Christopher Nolan also reuses the idea of him masking his face and posing as a cop to gain inside access to a secure location.

redhoodFrom there I jumped to his first connection to the Red Hood persona from Detective Comics# 168. Written by Bill Finger (Who is finally starting to get official credit for creating Batman!) with art by Lew Sayre Schwartz and Win Mortimer, this starts as a story not uncommon to find in the 50’s, as Batman and Robin are being exemplary members of society and doing some public education. This time, the Dynamic Duo are teaching college students how to be detectives, and enlist them to help solve the 10-year-old case of the identity of the Red Hood. This is the first time we learn that the Joker was once the Red Hood and an escape plan through a chemical waste pipe lead to his change in appearance.

Again, nothing spectacular, but a fun read if you were a child back then, or enjoy reading old batman stories of the 50’s (which I definitely do), but nothing that’s going to win any awards.

With the introduction of the Red Hooded helmet in Joker’s past we come to one of the most influential and controversial Batman stories of all time: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke. This titan of literature stands with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Year One, and Moore’s Watchmen as being part of an explosion that changed how people look at Batman, Graphic Novels and Superheroes as a whole.

joker1If you aren’t aware of the plot of this book, Joker shoots Barbara Gordon in front of her uncle(?) Commissioner James Gordon. He then kidnaps the Commissioner, takes pictures of his naked injured niece(? I never know) and tortures him with them. It’s pretty disgusting stuff. I don’t usually enjoy when things go that far, but in this case, it allowed for feminism and disabilities to be addressed later on in comics, it shows just how evil the Joker is, and most importantly, it stresses just how solid of a hero Gordon is. He never gives in to the madness that Joker is trying to coerce out of him. Even in the end, when Batman finally takes a break from his afternoon of tea and reading to come and save the day, Gordon insists that they bring him in “by the book”. The book ends with Batman giving a big lecture to Batman about how things can change. That they don’t have to die fighting each other.

This is a brilliantly written book. The Juxtaposition of The Joker’s tragic past and Gordon’s current tragedy is done well. Jumps between story maintaining similar visuals has always impressed me. The colour scheme of the past is intensifies the mood. And the image of Joker finally with the green hair, white skin and red lips is hauntingly unforgettable. And it addresses the fact that this origin may not even be his.

TKJ-laughterRecently it has been suggested by Grant Morrison that at the end of the book Batman kills the Joker. I don’t buy it. If Batman kills the Joker then everything he had just told Joker was pointless. And more importantly, if Batman kills the Joker, it means that he has no respect for Gordon’s wishes and everything he just went through. Not to mention that if he did kill the Joker then that must mean this book takes place in a different universe than the one we are in, since our Joker is still alive, but then how did Barbara end up in a wheel chair if the version of her was shot in a different universe. Well Grant Morrison? How?

250px-themanwholaughsFinally, we go back to the beginning with Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke’s The Man Who Laughs. This really is a reference to how it all started. The title references the silent film adaptation Victor Hugo’s book The Man Who Laughs. The Jokers look was based on Conrad Veidt’s appearance in that film. The cover is a reimagining of the first page of that first stories intro page, and the first time we see the Joker. The story itself retells the first appearance, with details of the red hood story introduced to give the Joker some motive. Brubaker breaths  just enough into the story to give the fire a little more intensity, but not so much that he blows out what has come before. In addition, this is a great continuation to Year One. Year One leaves us with Gordon waiting for Batman’s help with some guy named the Joker. This picks up there and uses the same back and forth view of Gordon and Batman to tell the story. It even uses the same colour narration bubbles. I don’t really like the art though. I can get used to it, but I’ve never really been a Mahnke fan.

In my opinion, this is a great way to read The Joker’s origin. Start in the beginning, jump ahead a little bit, add some back story, jump forward even more, fill in the back story, then continue where the back story finishes off, at the very beginning. But that’s just me.

I hope you liked this, it is the first of a few posts introducing the villains of The Long Halloween. I hope to look at all of their initial appearances as well as more modern tellings of their origins. Thanks for reading with me.

Images from:,,,,,


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